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Richie Zyontz got his foot in the door of sports broadcasting in a way almost unheard of today: He took a full-time security job at CBS headquarters on West 52nd Street in New York in the late 1970s and eventually in the research department for CBS Sports. He will be the first person to tell you that he is old school.
For five decades, Zyontz has produced pro football at the highest level, including the last 21 years as lead producer on Fox’s flagship NFL broadcast. He served as the lead television producer for seven Super Bowls, an assignment that maybe two dozen or more people in the world can claim to have accomplished.
Between Zyontz and Fox lead NFL director Rich Russo, they have been a part of 29 Super Bowls, including time on Fox and CBS Sports. Last year’s Super Bowl was Russo’s fifth as lead director.
Zyontz impersonated John Madden for years and texted the legendary broadcaster every day before his death. The two were so related that Madden introduced Zyontz to his wife, June, in 1986 and he was the best man at Zyontz’s wedding in 1990, which took place at Madden’s old house.
“I’m thankful that John wasn’t around to hear us talking to a reporter about Taylor Swift because I can’t get away easily,” Zyontz said, laughing.
But here we are. This site did a lot of Taylor Swift this week. You may be sick, and I understand that. I’m not here to tell you haters can’t hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But as a column designed to give you a little background on the intersection of the NFL and the media, I was curious how the behind-the-scenes approach for Fox’s broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs game against the Chicago Bears back in last week in a broadcast where one of the most famous people on the planet was at Arrowhead Stadium sitting in a suite next to the mother of one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
Zyontz said his Fox crew had no official word from the NFL or the Chiefs that Swift would attend. They know the connection between Travis Kelce and Swift because they live on Planet Earth. During pregame warmups, sideline reporters Erin Andrews and Tom Rinaldi independently learned that Swift was expected in the game. (Zyontz writes a blog for the Fox Sports website after we talk that offers more background here.)
“In the pregame, Erin and (analyst) Greg Olsen were on the field and Greg called Kelce and asked what was going on and he had unofficially confirmed that he was going to be there,” Zyontz said. “Up until that point, we didn’t really have a firm. Just rumours. No one from the league or the team gave us the heads up.”
Hours before kickoff, Russo informed his camera operators of the possibility of Swift appearing because it was an obvious shot for a broadcast crew in the same way that sports telecasts almost always feature celebrities on a game. Rinaldi’s son monitors social media and forwards updates to his father who forwards them to the production truck. Russo told his camera operators to pan the corporate suites.
“I thought he wasn’t going to be on the field during the pregame, but I mean, what do I really know?” Russo said laughing. “The players left the field at around 3pm local time and there was no sign of him. So before the game, I had several cameras look in their respective suites.
Russo said about five minutes before the player’s introduction, one of his camera operators recognized Swift in the back of Kelce’s suite. Andrews also recognized him from his position.
Determining where Swift is is only one part of the equation. Next came the real issue of how a broadcast should navigate this. It would be an editorial dereliction not to feature Swift at some point during the game. But at the same time, you don’t want the broadcast to be “Access Hollywood.”
Taylor Swift is HERE for the Chiefs game 👀 pic.twitter.com/46SW4gEodz
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 24, 2023
“In a situation like this, the broadcast crew, in this case (play-by-play broadcasters) Kevin (Burkhardt) and (Olsen), will follow our lead with pictures,” Zyontz said. “It’s kind of up to us to captain it on the day. Russo and I have been through this kind of thing before. Celebrities in a game are nothing new for us, but we usually only show them once . This celebrity has a vested interest in the game. It requires a little restraint on our part. Whether we succeed or not is probably not for us to judge. But I think once the game goes on and it’s a terrible game, those events may have helped us because we weren’t losing too much. It was a terrible game, but it also had joy throughout because the times we showed him, he reacted. It wasn’t just showing him all day. When there was a picture, I think we showed it.”
The fact that the game was such a blowout — the final score was 41-10, and Fox moved some of its viewers away from the game because it wasn’t competitive — made the Swift show, at least from my perspective. perspective, a broadcast character rather than an over-the-top distraction. He gave Burkhardt and Olsen some fun content in a game that was a slog to watch.
“When the game starts, we’re there to cover the game, but there’s a balance of how often we show him and when we show him,” Russo said. “Kelce has seven receptions and we’re not going to a Taylor Swift shot after every catch. Or if Kevin and Greg mention Taylor Swift, we’re not going to automatically go to a Taylor Swift shot because then I think it’s too much we really are. Like Richie said, I think the fact that it was like a blowout, especially in the second half, probably helped us in the sense that maybe we could show a little bit more than usual.
Russo said he assigned a low end zone camera operator, Andy Mitchell, to watch the suite, anticipating the possibility that Kelce might catch a touchdown pass. The reason Russo chose that camera position was because Swift was looking in that direction from the suite.
“Look, he scored a touchdown, and that’s a pretty picture,” Russo said. “That comes with a little bit of thought. Sometimes when people are in the suite, there might be glare, there might be sun, the mirror might come down. You’re not guaranteed to get shots of those people based on whether where the suite is related to the sun. So we are lucky that he is visible during the game.
Zyontz and Russo find everything about Swift hilarious, especially their little piece in it.
“Listen, I have a daughter who is a huge Taylor Swift fan,” Russo said. “When I’m in the car with him, he plays Taylor Swift music. So I’m aware of what we’re getting into. You don’t think about it during the game, but obviously, I know we’re talking about one of the biggest entertainers in the world right now.”
“I have to say I was a little shocked at the result,” Zyontz said. “I don’t really understand the impact this global icon means to people. It’s like a fusion of different worlds, right? It’s not often you see die-hard Bears fans watching a football game with an entire generation of young people only to see a cutaway shot of their hero. I was a little stunned. Hopefully this week we can get back to football.”
The Chiefs-Bears game went to 67 percent of the country (33 percent had the Dallas Cowboys against the Arizona Cardinals) on Fox’s late night. The window averaged 24.322 million viewers, far surpassing the next most-watched NFL game (Pittsburgh Steelers–Las Vegas Raiders on “Sunday Night Football,” which averaged 20.6 million viewers). The game was down from the same Week 3 time slot last year, when 24.4 million watched Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a Green Bay Packers–Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchup.
Amazon Prime Video is off to a great start with its “Thursday Night Football” package. The New York Giants–San Francisco 49ers game on September 21 averaged 13.92 million viewers while the Minnesota Vikings–Philadelphia Eagles game averaged 15.05 million last week. Those two games were the two largest audiences for “Thursday Night Football” since the package moved to Amazon.
(Photo of a Kansas City Chiefs fan cheering at Sunday’s game: David Eulitt/Getty Images)